Peruvian Literature

An Elusive Treasure 

By José Antonio Mazzotti

With more than sixty languages still in use, each with a rich oral tradition, it’s difficult to talk about a single national body of literature in Peru. From the start, the concepts of nation, modernity and literature have revealed more about the country’s social and cultural lack of integration than any reality desired by the critics and politicians who have sought to amalgamate and harmonize them together. “Official” Peruvian literature has always maintained an ambiguous and convoluted relationship with the idea of a modern nation. Ever since the triumph of the Enlightenment in the politics at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries, modern nationalism has emerged as a cultural device that has fed and been fed by the need to create a homogenizing state as a model rather than a moderator. But the reality is quite different and this can be witnessed by a short overview of the country’s immense literary richness. 

After independence from Spain in 1821, an ethnic criollo identity—that of Peruvian-born descendants of Spaniards—prevailed to the point that in legislative and economic terms, the idea of “Peruvian citizenship” became more of a gesture of good will than a recognition of the profound cultural and economic differences among the heterogeneous inhabitants of the country. 

However, most literary critics today agree that it will no longer do to speak only of a single literary system in the country. There are at least three: the “official” literature, written in “educated” Spanish and published in traditional outlets such as books and genres derived from the European tradition; “popular” literature, also in Spanish, but transmitted and circulated orally, that is generally anonymous and performative; and the great array of indigenous literatures, mainly in Quechua and Aymara, but also in the sixty other languages of the Peruvian Amazon. In general, this last system is a series of autonomous subsystems, generally through oral transmission, and often connected to specific contexts of collective ritual expression. However, important examples of written indigenous literature have also existed since colonial times. 

In spite of its cosmopolitan aspirations, in the so-called traditional “official Peruvian literature” the past and its traumas keep appearing as a constant revelation of a universe of multifarious or formalized oral traditions which undergirds the shape of more canonic works. These two strands maintain a secret and subterranean dialogue. Because of this, the languages that constitute the aesthetic world among the different social subjects of the Peruvian landscape underlie and penetrate the intellectual circles as well as the main trends, genres and works of the official tradition. Repressed orality constantly returns, to the point of contributing to the dynamic formal experimentation that some of the best known of our Spanish-speaking “national” authors have used in their work in the 20th and 21st centuries. In view of the discursive tensions that have existed since 1532 (the year in which the Spanish conquest began), it’s useful to look at some of the patterns that have set in since the Inca Garcilaso and Guaman Poma de Ayala in the 17th century to the modern works of César Vallejo, José María Arguedas, Mario Vargas Llosa, Oswaldo Reynoso and Miguel Gutiérrez, among others. 


In my 1996 book, Coros mestizos del Inca Garcilaso, translated to English as Incan Insights, I investigated the traces of Cuzco court orality in the major work of Inca Garcilaso, his now classic Comentarios reales (1609). My book, which has the suspicious subtitle of “Andean Echoes,” alludes to the systems of existing forms of history-keeping (in more precise academic terms, historization) in the ancient Cuzco court and to the form in which that source most likely filtered into the prestigious historiographical writings of the late Renaissance, which Inca Garcilaso, in spite of being a mixed-race Peruvian and native Quechua speaker, dominated with perfect control of the language. Through historical poems of ritual diffusion destined to effect political manipulation on the part of Inca rulers, the Cuzco court remembered its past with perspective that was clearly meant to serve as an example. Neither epic nor theatre nor narrative nor religious ceremony, but rather all these and more, this discursive genre was first described by chroniclers like Pedro de Cieza de León and Juan Díez de Betanzos. These narratives permit us to glimpse a sophisticated system of composition that used formulas, repetitions and semantic fields that are all discernible in some way in the first edition of Comentarios reales in 1609 through its style, punctuation and underlying symbolism.

Contemporary with Inca Garcilaso, the indigenous chronicler Guaman Poma de Ayala offered an extensive document to King Felipe III of Spain, describing the pre-Conquest order compared to the rising disorder and carnage under the Spanish colonial regime. In his Nueva coronica y buen gobierno (1615), famous for the 404 accompanying drawings, Guaman Poma, a chief from the Ayacucho region, explains in a Spanish heavily influenced by a Quechua subtext, all the internal knowledge of the Andean cultures that reconstructs their world within the universal monarchy led by the king of Spain, but proposing that local administration return to indigenous hands. Guaman Poma’s request is forceful, but ambiguous: he accepts Christianity and exalts the virtues of the native population, but he rejects crossbreeding between indigenous and Spanish and racial mixing in general, thus denying an irreversible reality. In his long chronicle he inserts a number of passages and poems in Quechua, which makes the book profoundly heterogeneous. 

At the same time, in 17th-century Peru, the literary elite certainly took advantage of its privileged role and access to printing presses to use Inca Garcilaso’s treatise to support its own political and economical interests. Starting with the extensive chronicles of Buenaventura de Salinas, Antonio de la Calancha, Diego de Córdoba and many others, the demand for preference for criollos over Spaniards was legitimatized thanks to the assumption that the Peru-born descendants had a greater understanding of the indigenous population and, paradoxically, thanks to the very purity of their own Spanish blood. According to their own accounts, nourished by the rich soil and mild climate of Lima, the Peruvian-born offspring of the Spaniards bore more resourceful and noble fruits than those of the peninsular nobility. Salinas praised the criollos, for example, in words that would become common as the century progressed, saying “They are all extremely sharp, lively, subtle, and profound in every genre of the sciences,” and that “the sky and climate of Peru waken them and ennoble them in spirit,” hence the Spanish nobility was improved upon through its Lima offspring. 

Thus, standing at the intellectual and hereditary pinnacle of the Viceroyalty, the criollos arranged the social landscape and sustained themselves with dubious arguments about their moral and biological superiority, rescuing from the Inca empire only its architectural wonders and not giving credit for any moral stature of its descendants. So, while the Peruvian-born criollos distinguished themselves from the Spanish, they also distanced themselves from the surviving sectors of the Inca empire’s Cuzco nobility. 


What is called the “Inca Renaissance” ran parallel to the construction of a criollo discourse concentrated in Lima and that would come in time to sustain a national Peruvian dualism, which would have its second gravitational axis in Cuzco. However, many criollos insisted on their role as the defenders and best interpreters for the indigenous population, thus establishing an indigenous-friendly tradition on their part that would survive until today. 

This apologist stance anticipates, by more than two hundred years, the defenses of the indigenous population that Flora Tristán, Manuel González Prada and Clorinda Matto de Turner would make under the aegis of 19th century positivism. These defenses often repeated discursive stereotypes of colonial origin about the native population, such as, for example, allusions to the indigenous person as good and generous. Among many similar samples, it is worth mentioning the bucolic atmosphere of Clorinda Matto de Turner’s story “Malccoy” (1886), in which she affirms that “the Indians have hearts filled with tenderness and generosity.” 

Another notable stereotype of colonial origin is the image of the lazy and sad Indian, which arose initially out of the idea of the Indian’s inherent character in opposition to the fierce spirit of the Spaniard. A modern example that reproduces this commonplace is this sentence from Ventura García Calderón story “El alfiler” (1924): “the Indian women still mourn the death of the Incas, which took place centuries ago, but revives in the lament of their humiliated race.” 

We also find the denigrating stereotype of the vicious, idol-worshipping and degenerate Indian, which, according to colonial authors like Luis Jerónimo de Oré, derives from their adherence to ancient customs. In republican discourse, however, this type of indigenous person owes his downfall and his state of being to a lack of literacy. Thus, one can see, for example, in Flora Tristán’s Peregrinaciones de una paria (1836), expressions such as “the stultification of the people is extreme [but only] when the newspapers reach the Indian’s hut […] will you acquire [you, the Peruvians] the virtues you lack”; and in the definition (clearly accusatory) of Manuel González Prada, when he proclaims in his “Speech in the Politeama” (1888) that “for three hundred years the Indian has sunk to the lowest levels of civilization, a hybrid with the vices of barbarians and without the virtues of Europeans” or in the “idiotic smile” of some of the characters in Enrique López Albújar’s “Ushanam-Jampi” (1920) or, more recently, in the cannibalistic and savage Indians of Mario Vargas Llosa’s Lituma en los Andes (1993) (This, of course, does not negate the enormous importance of this author, who is the only Peruvian to have received a Nobel Prize.) 

Finally, we have the colonial stereotype of the improvable Indian, a common theme for many viceroyal authors. This type has the innate capacity to achieve great advances in civilization, but is held back by a lack of modernity in a world that demands, prescribes and imposes a full-scale—and often bloody—westernization—an idea frequently encountered in the republican indigenist discourse. 

Thus, various concepts in republican discourse on the Indian maintain a basic coherence with colonial assertions that determine the cultural and materially inferior status of the indigenous population. While this is a simple and self-evident observation, it is important to emphasize that despite its aggressively righteous tone and demands for justice, a good part of the so-called indigenist movement in the 20th century followed the discursive patterns of a long historical trajectory.

I wish to dwell for a moment on two cases fundamental to the construction of another subsection of modern Peruvian literature. I am referring to César Vallejo and José María Arguedas, who have come, in the general consensus, to be seen as the two truly “national” Peruvian writers of the 20th century par excellence. However, their national character has more to do with a desire for coherence than with any kind of uniform identity in their voices. They are not self-evidently national just because they come from the Andes and write in Spanish, but because they embody a blissful and harmonious program of exulting mestizos, mixed-race Peruvians. This, ultimately, like criollo identity, is another of the multiple forms of Peruvian nationality. I imagine rather that what makes these two so profoundly Peruvian is precisely this interstitial zone, the space of contradiction that expresses a vision of the world, a sense of nature and nostalgia for utopia through discursive forms imported since 1532, and their subsequent romantic and fantastic elaborations. 

In sum, the panorama is too broad and varied to be covered in a single article. The fact is that “official” Peruvian literature remains elusive for criticism that seeks to understand it in its multinational and multilinguistic context. But that is precisely what makes it so exciting. 

José Antonio Mazzotti is a professor of Latin American Literature in the Department of Romance Languages at Tufts University. A poet and literary critic, he is also president of the International Association of Peruvianists and director of the Revista de Crítica Literaria Latinoamericana. His books include Coros mestizos del Inca Garcilaso: resonancias andinas (1996), Poéticas del flujo: migración y violencia verbales en el Perú de los 80 (2002), Incan Insights: El Inca Garcilaso’s Hints to Andean Readers (2008), eight collections of poetry, and several edited and co-edited volumes on Latin American and Latino studies.